WORKERS COMP FOR THE OVERWORKED
The Department of Labor recently decided a case that reminds practitioners of an overworked employee’s right to collect workers compensation. In August 2013 an employee filed an occupational disease claim alleging that he sustained a stress-related emotional condition in the performance of duty as an Administrative Assistant. He pointed to his depression and social withdrawal, his worsening pelvic floor dysfunction, the onset of neuropathy in his hands, feet and lower extremities, his weight gain of over 80 pounds, his worsening insomnia and sleep apnea, and the onset of several skin conditions. The core of his claim was based on being assigned the work of three other Administrative Assistants who left the office between October 2012 and February 2013. Here is what DOL said when it overturned the initial dismissal of his case—and what is important to practitioners who want to help employees make similar claims.
“When an employee experiences emotional stress in carrying out his employment duties or has fear and anxiety regarding his ability to carry out his duties, and the medical evidence establishes that the disability resulted from his emotional reaction to such situation, the disability is generally regarded as due to an injury arising out of and in the course of employment. This is true where the employee’s disability resulted from his emotional reaction to his day-to-day duties. The same result is reached where the emotional disability resulted from the employee’s emotional reaction to a special assignment or requirement imposed by the employing establishment or by the nature of his work.
“By contrast, the Board has held that a disabling condition resulting from an employee’s feeling of job insecurity per se is not sufficient to constitute a personal injury sustained while in the performance of duty. Likewise, assuming that the employee was unhappy doing inside work, desired a different job, brooded over the employing establishment’s failure to give him the kind of work he desired, and as a result of such brooding the employee became emotionally disturbed, this does not establish a personal injury sustained while in the performance of duty….
“Where the disability results from an employee’s emotional reaction to his regular or specially assigned work duties or to a requirement imposed by the employing establishment, the disability comes within the coverage of FECA. On the other hand, the disability is not covered where it results from such factors as an employee’s fear of a reduction-in-force or his frustration from not being permitted to work in a particular environment or to hold a particular position.
“As a rule, allegations alone by a claimant are insufficient to establish a factual basis for an emotional condition claim…. Vague or general allegations of perceived harassment, abuse or difficulty arising in the employment is insufficient to give rise to compensability under FECA….The Board has consistently held that emotional reactions to situations in which an employee is trying to meet his position requirements, when supported by sufficient evidence, are compensable….
“As the evidence of record establishes the staffing shortages and additional duties to which appellant attributes his emotional injury, at least in part, the Board finds that appellant has established a compensable factor of employment under the principles announced by Cutler. Appellant has attributed his emotional reaction to his regular or specially assigned work duties or to a requirement imposed by the employing establishment, and he has established a factual foundation for his claim. Although it is not clear that appellant was left to do the workload of four administrative assistants, as he alleged, Supervisor Mangold substantiated the staff shortages and appellant’s absorption of additional duties. That appellant was fully able to complete his tasks in a timely matter does not mean the staff shortages and increased workload caused him no stress.”
DOL ruled that the employee had established two compensable factors of employment and remanded the case for an examination of “the medical evidence to determine whether a causal relationship exists between the established factor of employment and appellant’s medical condition.” (See Appellant v. Dept. of Justice, TX, ECAB Docket No. 14-1438 (September 16, 2015))
Given the government-wide inability to replace staff over the last few years, union reps probably have several members who are now doing the work of multiple employees or positions. If unions spread the word about these employees perhaps being workers comp eligible, HR should not be surprised to see a handful of claims pop up. Hopefully, HR will be ready to apply the correct criteria to speed resolution. Or, HR folks might try to get ahead of this by reminding front line supervisors that to the extent employees are showing signs of emotional stress from their workload, they should probably check with HR to see what options they need to consider.